Jim Paris

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Jim Paris

Jim Paris’s book reviews

In 18th century England, and to a similar extent in Western Europe, there was a literature of Sensibility in which characters attempted to live a highly moral life while at the same time freely showing their emotions, especially when giving in to tears. One of the classics of this sensibility was the Scottish author Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling, which looked at the life of a thoroughly likeable young man who, although not the sharpest tack in the box, submitted to his most generous impulses on all occasions. Even when his health is giving way, he opines:

There is a certain dignity in retiring from life at a time, when the infirmities of age have not sapped our faculties. This world, my dear Charles, was a scene in which I never much delighted. I was not formed for the bustle of the busy, nor the dissipation of the gay; a thousand things occurred, where I blushed for the impropriety of my conduct when I thought on the world, though my reason told me I should have blushed to have done otherwise. - It was a scene of dissimulation, of restraint, of disappointment. I leave it to enter on that state which I have learned to believe is replete with the genuine happiness attendant upon virtue. I look back on the tenor of my life, with the consciousness of few great offences to account for. There are blemishes, I confess, which deform in some degree the picture. But I know the benignity of the Supreme Being, and rejoice at the thoughts of its exertion in my favour. My mind expands at the thought I shall enter into the society of the blessed, wise as angels, with the simplicity of children.

Although we do not tend to value such emotions today, they were a fresh discovery to our ancestors after all the snuff and lace cuffs of the Age of Reason. It also resulted in such wonderful books as Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield, Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, Sterne's Sentimental Journey, and Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard."
01/19/2012
This is my third reading of this strange and remarkable book. As I began re-reading the first half of the story, I felt disappointed -- as if my taste as the young student who first read this book had somehow traduced me. There was no central figure in this story: It was certainly not Gian' Battista Fidanza, a.k.a. Nostromo, the handsome capataz de cargadores; nor was it Charles and Emily Gould, owners of the San Tomé silver mine; nor was it the host of other characters that Conrad parades before our eyes.

No, the star was the silver of the mine. During a revolution, Nostromo is charged with sailing a lighter-full of silver -- one of the quarterly shipments from the mine -- to safety and away from the greedy hands of the Monteros and Sotillo. Although there were three people on that lighter that sails away from Sulaco toward Great Isabel Island, what remains is a mystery, a mystery as all three came to evil.

If you see the book from the point of view of that inanimate object, the silver of the mine, you see how it calls the tune to which all the other characters dance. Some manage to survive its pull, such as the Goulds themselves, who see themselves as servants of great wealth, or Father, later Cardinal/Bishop Corbelán, who cares only for souls, or Dr. Monygham, who is too wounded from his own past in the ill-fated Republic of Costaguana to be anything more than a cynical presence.

Nostromo is indeed a great book, but one that requires to be taken on its own merits. Approach it with no preconceptions, and stick with it for the first hundred or so pages. Things happen slowly at first, but then all hell breaks loose. And the most heroic event of all, Nostromo's famous ride to Cayta to hook up with the troops of General Barrios, is seen only in retrospect.

Finally, we see into Nostromo's own mind -- and what we see is what the silver of the mine has done to him.
12/26/2011
Imagine a kind of King Lear story in which the main difference is that the King is, far from being an innocent, more devious than the most devious of lawyers. Instead of seeing which of his two sons (Mountjoy and Augustus) loves him best, he plays games, making his eldest out to have been a bastard and leaving his estate (via the terms of an entail) to the youngest; and, when discovering that his younger son was too presumptuous, coming forth with ironclad evidence to prove that the other was the firstborn after all, and by the terms of the entail, deserving of all the estate. By the end of this long novel, we have seen Mr. Scarborough through many lights, but in the end in a more sympathetic one:

But I think that he has within him a capacity for love, and an unselfishness, which almost atones for his dishonesty; and there is about him a strange dislike to conventionality and to law which is so interesting as to make up the balance. I have always regarded your father as a most excellent man, but thoroughly dishonest. He would rob any one,—but always to eke out his own gifts to other people. He has, therefore, to my eyes been most romantic.

As the story progresses from one surprise to another, we get some of that rich texture that is a trait of Trollope's longer fiction:

Mr. Scarborough's whole life had been passed in arranging tricks for the defeat of the law; and it had been his great glory so to arrange them as to make it impossible that the law should touch him. Mountjoy [the eldest son] had declared that he had been defrauded. The creditors swore, with many oaths, that they had been horribly cheated by this man. Augustus [the younger son], no doubt, would so swear very loudly. No man could swear more loudly than did Mr. Grey [the astonished family lawyer] as he left the squire's chamber after this last revelation. But there was no one who could punish him. The money-lenders had no writing under his hand. Had Mountjoy been born without a marriage-ceremony it would have been very wicked, but the vengeance of the law would not have reached him. If you deceive your attorney with false facts he cannot bring you before the magistrates. Augustus had been the most injured of all; but a son, though he may bring an action against his father for bigamy, cannot summon him before any tribunal because he has married his mother twice over. These were Mr. Scarborough's death-bed triumphs; but they were very sore upon Mr. Grey.

There are, in addition, a couple of subplots, one of them hinging on the love of Harry Annesley for Florence Mountjoy, the niece of Mountjoy Scarborough. Another is Harry's rather dim uncle, Peter Prosper, who, to spite Harry, his heir, plans to marry another woman in his old age and beget substitute heirs.

There is also a bit of anti-Semitism in the portrayal of several Jewish moneylenders who are tricked by Mr. Scarborough into signing away their claims on the extensive gambling debts of Mountjoy Scarborough. I would be more offended if this novel were written more recently -- but I cannot expect that 19th century authors adhere to present-day racial and political sensibilities. Hence we have Dickens's Fagan in Oliver Twist and George Eliot's Daniel Deronda.

In the end, Mr. Scarborough's Family is one of Anthony Trollope's best novels outside the Barchester and Pallister series, along with Is He Popenjoy?, Miss Mackenzie, The Vicar of Bullhampton, and The Way We Live Now. As such, it would make a good first novel for someone who is trying to determine whether Trollope is worth reading.

Of course, I can answer that in the positive: He is eminently worth reading. I have read most of his works and continue to be amazed by the excellence of his 47 novels (somewhat less so in his short stories and nonfiction).
12/25/2011
The travel gene is dominant in my make-up. (That's what comes of having been born in Cleveland.) I had heard of this book for decades: When I saw it on the shelf in the Santa Monica Public Library, I picked it up and checked it out. It took about three pages for me to get totally hooked, and that despite Evan S. Connell's warning about a possible "dilatory exposition and a sauntering digressiveness." Warnings like that, I take as a challenge.

The Sea and the Jungle is the story of H. M. Tomlinson's voyage from Swansea in Wales to Porto Velho, a thousand miles up the Amazon and its tributaries, close to the Bolivian border, in 1909-1910. There, a railroad was being built to ... somewhere or other, if it was ever finished. It was not long into the book before I had the very unusual feeling that I wanted to start reading it again -- more slowly -- and savoring every word. There was something about Tomlinson's way of seeing things, as a rank amateur who knew how to describe both what he saw and how he felt about it. About his first few days at sea, he writes:

For as to the sea itself, love it you cannot. Why should you? I will never believe again that the sea was ever loved by anyone whose life was married to it. It is the creation of Omnipotence, which is not of human kind and understandable, and so the springs of its behavior are hidden. The sea does not assume its royal blue to please you. Its brute and dark desolation is not raised to overwhelm you, you disappear then because you happen to be there. It carries the lucky foolish to fortune, and drags the calculating wise to the strewn bones.

This is a different point of view from Joseph Conrad's, as he was a seasoned pro who had seen the sea in all its moods. Tomlinson, on the other hand, was a talented amateur who saw quickly to the heart of things.

There is a comparison that can be made with The Heart of Darkness and its colonial "pilgrims": The same types are to be seen in Porto Velho and the surrounding camps. They have come to throw their lives away in search of some remote commercial gain. Tomlinson tells the tale of a man who is plunked by a company in the middle of nowhere, to be placed in charge of a pack of sick slaves by a jetty on the Madeira River:

An unknown Somebody in Wall Street or Park Lane has an idea, and this is what it does. The potent impulse! It moves the men who don't know the language of New York and London down to this desolation. It begins to ferment the place. The fructifying thought! Have you seen the graveyard here? We've got a fine cemetery, and it grows well. Still, this railway will get done. Yes, people who don't know what it's for, they'll make a little of it, and die, and more who don't know what it's for, and won't use it when it's made, they'll finish it. This line will get its freights of precious rubber moving down to replenish the motor tyres of civilisation, and the chap who had the bright idea, but never saw this place, and couldn't live here a week, or shovel dirt, or lay a track, and wouldn't know raw rubber if he saw it, he'll score again. Progress, progress! The wilderness blossoms as the rose. It's wonderful, isn't it?

The tale of the poor sap who winds up in the jungle takes up Chapter IV and is, in many ways, the heart of the book.

One thing I know for sure, however much I love strange new places, I will take a pass on the jungle. I wouldn't mind the Atlantic near as much -- but those insects, those tropical diseases and strange fevers. No, I'll take a pass on them. But I thank Tomlinson for seeing the jungle clearly, with its effect on the legions of Americans, Europeans, and Brazilians who were caught up in its grips. Today Porto Velho is a large city, and much of the jungle has been chopped down to make room for other dreams of empire.

No sooner did I finish reading this book than I ordered a copy for my library. Something this good deserves another look.
06/30/2011
As I am reading all of Balzac's work with the Yahoo! Balzac group, I want to use this review to discuss the dream life of a Frenchman of the 1830s and 1840s. Like many males in whatever time or place, the French author saw himself -- ideally -- as rich, famous, with occult powers (witness The Thirteen and Louis Lambert), and, above all, admired by beautiful young women who flocked around him and surrendered to his every whim. Just as the Marquis de Sade in the 120 Days of Sodom imagined from his solitary cell in the Bastille an infinite number of masturbatory permutations of the sex act ... and just as Henry Miller in The Tropic of Cancer and The Tropic of Capricorn imagined far more bedmates than he ever enjoyed ... so Balzac wanted to use his work to imagine what it would be like to be King of the Mountain in his dreams.

There were times, however, when Balzac realized the tawdriness of some of his boyhood dreams; and The Muse of the Department is a good example. Journalist Etienne Lousteau visits the provincial city of Sancerre and initiates an affair with a young married woman, Dinah de la Baudraye. Lousteau returns to Paris, but Dinah leaves her husband and follows him, quite pregnant. While Lousteau's career (and relationship) loses some of its luster, Dinah helps Lousteau with his writing and tries to make the relationship work -- but to no avail.

Her husband de la Baudraye has been busy in the meantime getting filthy rich and honored with a title of nobility from the July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe. He offers to accept Dinah back, acknowledge her children as his own, and give up some of his miserly ways -- especially since now he can afford it. So Dinah leaves Lousteau who sinks slowly from his dissipated ways. In the end, she lends him 6,000 francs to pay his debts, but we know that Lousteau will continue to incur new debts because he will never change his ways.

Balzac is not always so mature in his discussion of women. Dinah misses the bohemian life with the journalist, but Lousteau's nostalgie de la boue is too strong for her to stomach.
03/28/2011
This slim volume is the first of the six Barsetshire novels by the author. It tells the tale of a good man in an Anglican cathedral town whose work running a charity institution comes under attack from the press. How he and his family react makes this a particularly heartwarming choice and a good introduction to Trollope, who is becoming one of my favorite novelists.
12/05/2010
Willow Rose - Chasing a Killer No-One Believes Exists
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